“Foul-smelling” well water and other signs of contamination in predominantly Black North Carolina communities show how inadequate access to water and sanitation is a racial justice concern.
May 1, 2023, Brunswick County, N.C.–Today, 376 Black residents from unincorporated parts of Brunswick County, N.C., urged local officials to address critical infrastructure problems preventing the community from accessing its universal human right to safe, clean, affordable water. In a petition to County Commissioners, residents using private water wells detailed their experiences with foul-smelling water–a sign of possible contamination. Residents are calling on the Brunswick County Public Utilities Department and the Brunswick County Environmental Health Department to apply for State Rural Grants and Community Development Block Grants to fund much-needed infrastructure improvements.
“Commissioners are elected to look over and make decisions,” said Carl L. Parker, President of the Brunswick County branch of the NAACP. “But you can’t make good decisions for people when you have biased ideals and biased visions. Problems become opportunities when the right people join and take on the task to find the solution. “
The Biden administration has allocated a historic $50 billion towards expanding water infrastructure across the country over the next five years under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), of which $20 million has been allocated to North Carolina for the fiscal year 2022-2023. The Division of Water Infrastructure and the State Water Infrastructure Authority report that millions of dollars in funds are still available. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, municipalities and counties that administer water and sewer services, not just the State, are eligible to apply for them.
Meanwhile, Brunswick County residents have stated that municipal well water testing services are too expensive to be economically feasible for routine checks on the quality of their well water. For some, water filtration systems to address water quality concerns are also economically out of reach, and these residents have relied on buying costly bottled water. Many live in areas where municipal drinking water and wastewater lines have not been extended, and residents cannot afford to pay the County fees to have the lines extended or connect their homes to existing water lines as stipulated in County utility policies. Some have noted that the lack of water lines also limits access to fire hydrants and related infrastructure, thereby risking potential property damage, physical harm, or death in the event of a fire. Residents report that many individuals in the neighborhood had suffered from kidney disease and cancers, which they believe may stem from drinking the well water.
“As an advocate for low-income people and Black people, let’s make the rural communities a better place to live–with water and sewer connection,” added Brunswick County resident Charles Warren.
The United Nations recognizes access to water and sanitation as a human right. According to the UN, inadequate access to clean, affordable water is a public health risk and a leading cause of child mortality. Communities of color in North Carolina and the broader U.S. disproportionally experience barriers to accessing their right to water. Research by Jacqueline Gibson, head of North Carolina State University’s Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, shows that in Wake County, North Carolina, every 10 percent increase in the African American population proportion within a census block increases the odds of exclusion from municipal water service by 3.8 percent. Gibson also found that race is a significant predictor of water service access. In a study on the health impacts of private well water in North Carolina, Gibson found that children in homes relying on private wells have 25 percent increased odds of elevated blood lead compared with children in houses served by a community water system.
The escalating climate crisis is expected to further exacerbate water challenges for communities of color across the state in coming years, including increased risk of flooding that can impact private water wells, risk of saltwater intrusion into underground aquifers that can affect water quality and corrode aging lead pipes increasing health risks, and increased risk of drought that can affect water systems.
“As a recipient of federal funding, Brunswick County has a legal obligation under the Civil Rights Act to ensure that federal funds are distributed and spent in a way that does not adversely affect racial minorities,” said Maryum Jordan, Climate Justice Attorney for EarthRights International, which is supporting the communities. “The funds are available–the County must step up and ensure these community members can access their human right to safe, clean, affordable water service. Anything short of that is a violation of their rights.”
Residents are calling on the County to:
- Apply for funding to extend municipal water and wastewater lines to their neighborhoods and pay for the hookup fees to residences.
- Mitigate the risk of damages from fires by applying for funding to install new fire hydrants simultaneously with new water and wastewater lines.
- Retrofit affected homes with up-to-date water filtration systems and replacement pipes.
Kate Fried, EarthRights International